BIG TOWN

END OF THE ROAD

Toronto (remember the Argos?) is the city of the highest-paid losers in Canada

BILL HOWELL April 1 1972
BIG TOWN

END OF THE ROAD

Toronto (remember the Argos?) is the city of the highest-paid losers in Canada

BILL HOWELL April 1 1972

END OF THE ROAD

BIG TOWN

BILL HOWELL

Toronto (remember the Argos?) is the city of the highest-paid losers in Canada

This morning over breakfast Beverley, my wife, reminded me about getting a new ball cock for the toilet from Heinz, our landlord, and we talked awhile about her still having to get used to her teeth again, since she went to the dentist yesterday afternoon. Then I told her about my dream last night and my plan to write a piece today about Toronto. She thought it was a great idea, and about time. (Back home in Nova Scotia the days took care of themselves; here I have to get each day together as it comes.) That was 47 minutes ago. Nothing beats a great big breakfast.

“Good luck,” she said, hopping onto her beautiful old green bicycle, which really belongs to our friend Carol from Vancouver. “And don’t forget to put in the part about the Yonge Street Cynics and the Children of Light.” “I won’t forget,” I said, giving her a great big kiss-off, “and you have a good day at the office, huh?” And off she went, behind one of those old-fashioned red rocket streetcars. With the cobblestones, she should be bounced completely awake by the time she gets to work.

She’s currently the Education Liaison Officer for Project Metrodoc, a Toronto-sounding job if there ever was one. In fact she’s the only person in the world who does it. Every day, from nine to five, she works in a world in which she has to dial nine to get out, phoning people all over the city for the particulars about courses for her

Continuing Education Directory. “What you do for a living,” she said once long ago, “is nowhere near as important as who you’re going to be.”

In the beginning “Toronto” was a Huron Indian word meaning “meeting place.”

In 1749, the year Halifax was founded, a stockaded trading post called Fort Rouillé was established by the Canadian French three miles east of the mouth of the Toronto (Humber) River and garrisoned by an officer and 15 soldiers. It flourished for nine years.

In 1760, British Major Robert Rogers visited the site on his way to take possession of the western forts vacated by the French after the Seven Years’ War. It was burned to the ground. He wrote: “There was a tract of about 300 acres of cleared land round the place where formerly the French had a fort called Fort Toronto. The soil is principally clay. The deer are extremely plentiful. I think Toronto a most convenient place for a factory.”

The Oldest Standing Building in Toronto, according to the guidebooks, is Scadding House, the home of merchant John Scadding, built in 1794. In August 1805, the Mississaugas sold the site of the present city to the British Crown through Governor John Simcoe (who had arrived with a tent which once belonged to Captain Cook, the famous circumnavigator, and a few other people and things in 1793) for £1,700, or $8,500 in cash and goods. (This is known as a Toronto Purchase.) Toronto used to be called York, obviously some time before New York. (But don’t bet on it.) The Americans first visited the city when it was still York, in April and July, 1813, and Torontonians have never forgiven them for their bad manners. From the outset, however, Toronto was a Planned City, having had 16 City Plans in its first 66 years. The Coat of Arms for the city bears the motto: “Industry, Intelligence, Integrity.” It was written by the first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, who was something of a radical. His house also still stands. So much for history.

Today Toronto is the home of both the Toronto Human Hair Supply Company (wigs: $9.95) and the Toronto Stock Exchange. Take your pick. A city of associations, it’s the National Headquarters of pretty well every In and Out group in the country. It’s a megalopolis disguised as a small town, and vice versa. In three years here I’ve learned that there are just as many reasons for loving this city as hating it, and that people leave here for the same reasons they arrive. When time has been speeded up so fast that it almost seems there’s a new generation every three months, three years is a long time.

Toronto is the home of the largest Muzak franchise in the world. Eighty-five million people hear Muzak every day. But you’re not supposed to be able to hum along with it, or even identify the tune. Because primarily it’s meant to mask unpleasant Toronto noises like high-heeled shoes typing tiled floors. It’s melted-butter music, made in New York. It comes in three program flavors — office, heavy industrial and public area.

Its tempo is scientifically tested by the U.S. Army at Aberdeen, Maryland, to compensate for every high and low psychological production period during the working day. Recently, at the stockyards in St. Louis, they were having what can only be described as “a dark cutting problem.” It seems that the animals could smell the fear of the slaughter ahead, so their guts were rupturing. When Muzak was installed, however, the Dark Cutting Problem was improved upon by some 35%.

So much for the facts.

Toronto is the undisputed computer capital of Canada. (Welcome to the Corporation: 1. Here is a list of your securities. 2. We fired a man to make room for you. 3. We think that much of him. 4. Personally, he may come back to haunt us but we hope he’s tired. 5. You’re overqualified, but young people come cheap. 6. Don’t spend too much time with wrong numbers. 7. We like to keep our value systems systematic. 8. There is no better way for getting things done. 9. We protect our own best interests.

10. Most people settle down into less than who they are.

11. They’re vulnerable, our best customers. 12. We solve the mechanics of living for them. 13. Our competition has gone too far. . .) Some of my best friends here are Systems Analysts, who at least refuse to allow themselves to be “promoted” out of the country.

Toronto is the most American of all Canadian cities. The green berets worn by the Green Berets to kill other people are made here, and there are probably more American expatriates here than any other place on earth. Nobody knows exactly how many draft resisters and deserters live here, but in the first three months of 1971 Americans replaced British and Italian nationals as Canada’s largest single immigrant group. And they love it here. Toronto knows more about what’s happening in the United States than any other city in the world.

If you take the Ongiara, the ferry to Ward’s Island, from the bottom of downtown Toronto at night and stare back through the smog and whatever weather is hanging around, back at all the lights and towers and power lines, you can’t help wondering how many more or fewer electrical connections have to be made before a city becomes aware of itself. You know, in a science fiction kind of way. Only maybe it isn’t fiction. The lake gives you no answers, it’s dead. But unlike the ocean, you can’t see dead men’s faces in it. It lacks the salt of ancient seamen’s blood. My friend Sam lives on Ward’s Island. I often go to see him there, usually on the nights when Beverley’s making pottery.

Sam and I’ve learned a lot from each other. While I was playing football at Queen Elizabeth High in Halifax, he was worrying about maybe having to kill someone some day. And while I was composing poems about apple blossoms in the Annapolis Valley, he was getting his head kicked in by cops and rednecks in the middle of the civil rights movement in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve never seen a man killed, but he has. I can go home for Christmas, but he can’t.

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The first time we met we pushed the conversation around like a peace pipe. (We pushed it around the paintings and posters, the furniture, the bookshelf, and then it took off. We spent the rest of the evening chasing it under the carpet, along the ceiling and through each other’s very latest assumed positions.) By three in the morning the knees were worn out of the pants of our breath, so our conversation split up and went home, to continue itself in my sleep. Our words were about Canada. They went something like this:

SAM: Toronto sure is a nice town.

ME: All Air Canada pilots from Toronto are carefully trained to be condescending in a minimum of two languages.

SAM: Even the hamburgers taste better here.

ME: Toronto has bad breath. And the drinking water is terrible here.

SAM: Only 37 more months and I’ll be a Canadian citizen! Whadda y a think about that? Maybe 1 can get a job with the CBC ... .

ME: Toronto’s idea of Canada is

about as real as a TV commercial. The one that shows how the phosphate removes the dirt.

SAM: The cops are so friendly here! And I’ll never get over those yellow cars they drive.

ME: The trouble with Toronto is that it doesn’t know how to think Western Big, Atlantic Humble, Northern Far Out, Quebec Erratic, or Pacific Specific. It’s just Toronto, and that’s what’s wrong with it.

SAM: State of mind has to take precedence over physical events.

CANADA: There she stands, folks, in the basic black of night: her body is her bargaining position.

TORONTO: Polite to the end, virginity is a new white dress designed by silence.

EVERYBODY: Blame it on

Toronto!

Then I had my first cup of Sam’s

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sassafras tea, which his mother still sends him in root form from Apple Rocks, Kentucky. He was offhand shy about it in the way good people usually are when they’re sharing something that’s deep-down important. (Like the sometimes when Beverley and I sit cross-legged on the grass across from each other in Queen’s Park on University Avenue, and take turns explaining things that are just big enough to hold in your two fingers, carefully. Or when part of you goes away and never comes back again, like a heartbeat. The subway is like the heartbeat of Toronto. It mainly runs away from the axis of the city, Yonge and Bloor, on the graph in your City Hall mind. But down by Union Station it swings up to the left, and if you’re quietly sitting cross-legged across from someone on the Queen’s Park grass you can hear the trains rumbling down there, under the downtown concrete ground.) But just because you have your own subway, you shouldn’t pretend you have your own underground.

EVERYBODY : Pitch is a matter of who can stay in tune, when you’re alone and you’re whistling in the dark.

ME: You still don’t understand about Canada yet, Sam. I mean, we really are different here.

SAM: Yeah, the Canadian government plays around with unemployment statistics the same way the American government plays around with Vietnam casualty lists.

ME: But maybe Canada believes in itself, while the States don’t.

SAM: The talking typewriter costs $40,000 (U.S.) and was invented by Omar Khayyam Moore, a Canadian.

ME: Aw come on, Sam. We’re a physically weak nation in the middle of a strong argument. And the argument’s about man as we’ve known him, and his future. And it all starts here and now. And our position is based on the possibility that human ideals are part of our national natural resources.

SAM: Thank you, Louis Riel. Meanwhile it’s as if America has tucked away all her “old-fashioned” ideals in the cedar chest of Canada, and left it up to us to air them. But not around her, please, because she has this allergy to history.

ME: Thank you, Laura Secord.

AMERICA: The only people left

who still believe in the American Dream are New York transvestites,

performing midgets and Canadians. CANADA: Torontonians, you mean! SAM: Do I?

ME: Here we all are, dodging myths instead of bullets.

EVERYBODY : It’s so frustrating, being Canadian!

The guy on the radio last week had something to do with it. He said the population of Greater Metropolitan Toronto (“North America’s FastestGrowing City”) would be 6.5 million by the year 2000. And then he went on about the place as if it had a context outside the individual people who are living here. He didn’t say anything about how we’re going to have to get ourselves through 1984 before we get to 2001. And I couldn't argue back. I think it’s time we started figuring out what all these facts we’re being bom-

‘Toronto’s highrises have paper-thin walls, waiting rooms no one waits in, broken-down clothes dryers, no children, exorbitant rents . .

barded with mean in terms of how each of us wants to live. I think it’s time we made friends with our Toronto jobs, and vice versa. It’s not enough just to plant trees around your summer cottage on weekends to stay sane.

Although Toronto has more per capita homeowners than any other North American city, more than half the people here already live in apartments. Most of these are highrises. They have tiny balconies, gestures that from a distance look like chestof-drawers handles. They also have paper-thin walls, waiting rooms no one waits in, broken-down clothes dryers, no children, exorbitant rents, Big Brother intercoms, and they’re built for New Torontonians, careerists who’ve come to the Big City to confront the Beast in its lair. At Christmas time, tenants string pathetic sets of Noma lights along their balcony railings, and from a farther distance a new apartment block looks a

lot like a blinking computer bank. “Man is a highly serviceable animal,” but nobody ever lies about being lonely.

Our apartment is different. It has character. It tries to compensate for the world. It is very homely. It’s got lots of pacing room and some days I drive Heinz, our landlord, crazy when he’s doing delicate work. Like today. His shop might as well be called The Truth of North Optical Company (“Better Vision While U Wait”), because it represents a good, small business and the way people near here need the guy who runs it. The neighborhood is made up of Italian, German, Ukrainian, Chinese, Greek, Portuguese and Austrian Canadians, the kind of people who only buy stuff when the shopkeepers are as friendly as their asking prices. (There are more Italians in Toronto than there are in Florence.) Heinz grins a lot, whether he’s wearing his white coat or not. He’s sixtyish, but his heart is under 30. He’s also fat, bald, and has beautiful thin hands, a surprise. When I go down to see him in a minute, about the ball cock, there are two versions of what can happen: his and mine.

Either: He tells me about how he flew one of the six Heinkel 177 longrange bombers from southern France early in 1942 and dropped leaflets about Nazi kinds of things on New York City, his being one of three planes that made it back on mere grins of glee without crashing into the ocean. “Toronto,” he tells me, “is a lot different from New York. But I haven’t been back since. I have been here almost 20 years now. Hoxter, on the other hand, back home in Germany, I have been back there. It is something else, ja?” (A grin.) “Ja, I have been back there several times since with my wife, Hilda. We have a friend there, a Dr. Funk, who runs the Felsenkluft Kennels, the finest German shepherd dogs in the world, all Axel and Rolf bloodlines. Good dogs, the finest of the breed! If you ever want a good dog I will write him and maybe all of us can arrange something very special, ja?” (Another grin.) “Ja, it is something else again. I don’t like these kids with the flags on their jackets walking around on the street lately. It reminds me of something. I think all the flags in the world should be used to build a big bonfire with, and then maybe people would be friendlier and love each other, like Canadians.”

Or. He explains why horses can’t see very well after dark and I tell him foxes are the only wild animals in this country that’ll ever stare a human

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being in the eye. Then he offers me a cognac and together we talk about whv Toronto has become an insane place to be a human being in, and what can be done about it. I tell him that in this country we tend to measure a city’s appeal in terms of the time it takes to get out if it, usually by car, and then we agree that it probably takes longer to get out of Toronto than any other place in Canada. Then he suggests that as long as we keep thinking about our cities like this they’ll just keep on getting worse and become piles of nonreturnable garbage, and I agree. We don’t talk about high outcome taxes, or the rapidly rising crime rate, or what happens to stray dogs here, or about how most Torontonians are basically nice people who just need a good swift kick in the arse every now and then to be kept from being so damn cocky. We leave that up to the cognac.

But whatever happens I come on back upstairs here with the ball cock, while Heinz waits in the basement, his hand on the water main. Ball cocks are real; they cost $4.95 retail, even if you don’t have to pay for them. And you can learn how to install them by trying to, if you don’t mind getting your shirt sleeves wet. It takes about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the world keeps whizzing around on its axis at more than 1,000 miles an hour, urban planner Jane Jacobs says that Toronto’s the only city in North America there’s still a worthwhile chance of saving, and I’ve got to get back to work.

If only we -could all be Italian chestnut vendors shouting out at everyone beside our completely licensed candy-cane-canopied suburban pushcarts outside Honest Ed’s at the corner of Markham and Bloor. . .

But every time I come back to Toronto, I can’t help it, I like the place more. Yonge Street has changed a lot in three years, and so has my attitude toward it. I used to like to walk it from Queen Street and take pictures of myself in the store windows all the way up to Bloor. But now there are so many other lights flashbulbing there, my eyes have become allergic to them. So I’ve started aiming the camera in my mind at other people.

But with their permission, of course. Because there are a lot of fleshed-out people on that street wearing new clothes. And drunken old men, swearing and lurching off the Dundas streetcar. And strip joints and clip joints. And wasted, panhandling freaks in faded bell-bottom jeans. And scared little girls who’ve run away from home in Don Mills

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for the weekend without their bras, who buy posters you could order in Halifax from Berkeley-California five years ago, if that was what you wanted. And maybe the real population of Yonge Street is the traffic.

It is virtual spiritual suicide to arrive in Toronto and walk up or down Yonge Street with a poem in your heart. Because everybody’s a stranger, a strangler who pulls back at the last second. (/ mean, how cool can you get?)

But upstairs, at the poetry reading in an artist’s small studio you can get to from an alley on the east side of that street near Bloor, I met Beverley. You can never know about Yonge Street.

But sometimes we can, there are other streets. Like the summer nights when the weather mugged us, so we all sat out on an uncertain veranda over a meat market on Church Street, cracking peanuts and a three-quart bottle of Canadian rosé, a treat, while we nodded about the why without the easy hope of how.

(“It’s Ontario Nationalism, that’s what! It’s just taking control away from the American exploiters and putting it into the hands of Canadian exploiters. What’s the difference?”) Or when we opened up the Soft Cell coffeehouse on King Street to beat the Zeller’s Gloom that hangs over the whole country, including Toronto, from mid-January to middle March. (“It’s very Canadian, you know, to knock what you don’t like about what you like best.”) It didn’t matter how it was said so much as what it was, coming out. And that someone kept on saying it.

Or the place on Ossington Avenue, where you never knew who was going to show up for dinner, but you learned how to cook for each other and everyone else. (“Where does your expense account life end and your poetry begin?”) Or meeting more neat people getting a petition all signed up to save what’s left of the downtown trees. I don’t like to think about who I am and money at the same time. Friends are great reminders. And maybe Toronto, like Canada, is the agreed upon distance between people who never meet.

Toronto was always there, like the Lone Ranger’s faithful friend. Even then. It was just jam-packed with important people, people who were full of themselves. People who built that Toronto place around themselves, like a web of power. They had answers to questions you never even thought of asking, and all the examples for pretty well everything seemed to come directly from them. As far as

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you could see, they all worked on TV and so knew each other intimately. (“Good afternoon, boys and girls, welcome back to the masked media.”) And they all talked fast about how they were much more Canadian than anyone else. Even you. Because they weren’t part of you, like the Leafs. You cheered for the Canadiens.

The memories feed each other and grow. And here I am, reminiscing like an old man in my writing room over the optical shop. I finish off the last of a smoke and stare out the window beside me, through the 23 electric lines, at what’s left of the day. Toronto, I think, is like a great big spider’s web. I’ve counted those lines many times. I reread what I’ve written so far, pick the commas out of my teeth with the tip of my tongue.

Outside there, the city waits. For whatl And then an image hits me, like the beginning of a waterfall: Hundreds of thousands of bright kites in the Saturday morning sky, like the applause of birds’ wings. Maybe even millions of ’em. Certainly every kid in Toronto is out there — in school yards, parks, playgrounds, apartment balconies, and on all the hills in all the fields around, because it’s almost the first day of spring. And because kite flying is a lot like fishing, each kid has a good mile of 10-pound test nylon line stretching from his homemade kite up there on down to the reel in his hands, which he’s fixed onto the bottom half of an old rod. And everybody in the whole city is slowly letting out a little more line in his or her mind. And everybody in the whole country is waiting, in the name of all that is natural and real, for Toronto to decide whether it’s going to be the home of nifty people and shady trees or the hideout of shady people and money trees. . .

And just when I’m getting the plot to the point where all the kids shout “Heigh-ho, Silver, away!” and cut their kite lines, there’s a terrific kaffuffle downstairs.

There’s only one person I know who sounds like that, coming home. Like a ferry docking, a jet taking off, and a subway stopping, all at the same time. It’s Beverley, bicycle and all.

“Well,” she says, climbing up the stairs with a huge grocery bag, nestling it safely on the hall table, and heading in here with her coat still on, “did you solve the world’s problems, finish off your article, and remember to eat lunch, all in the one day?”

“No,” I say, climbing into a suppertime grin, “but I fixed the ball cock.” ■